Tag Archives: realistic

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks

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Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
Candlewick, 2018.

13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.

As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.

Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.

This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.

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The Button War by Avi

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The Button War by Avi
Candlewick, 2018

At the start of World War I, in a Russian-occupied remote Polish village, a gang of 11 and 12 year-old boys start a game that quickly spins into something much more serious and dangerous.

The boys set out to “get” buttons from the succession of soldiers of different nationalities that come into their village. Whoever secures the best one (though that is never defined) will become the Button King and all the others will have to bow down to him. The dare is initiated by Jurek, a masterful portrait of a controlling and manipulative bully who knows all the right buttons to push to get the others to follow him. Jurek is powerless in the world, a poor orphan who lives with his uninterested sister, but has great power in the microcosm of the gang. Jurek controls the game, even as the others try to claim victory or walk away: “Jurek invented rules faster than any human being in the world. And they were always about what he wanted.” Like Lord of the Flies, it is easy to forget that these are just young boys.

The others, including the narrator Patryk, all persuade themselves that they’re playing so that they can beat Jurek, but none of them have the agency to turn away from Jurek as he goads them into compliance. Even though Patryk is physically bigger than Jurek, he doesn’t have the single-minded ambition and rage that the other boy is driven by.

The adults that are present are either parents or soldiers. Parents are mostly ineffectual and out of their depth; they know little or nothing of the “far world” (everything outside their village), and have no clue about the tides of history that have washed up in their lives. The soldiers are cruel, thoughtless, and entirely, and deliberately, interchangeable.

This short and stylized novel is a clear allegory for the futility of war, often exemplified by the battlefields of WWI in which hundreds of thousands of men died fighting over a few muddy yards of a field. As one nationality after another comes into the village – Germans, Austrians, French, English, Cossacks – the fallout from the game becomes increasingly serious and becomes one of life and death. This is a pitch-black and thought-provoking novel that doesn’t have an uplifting ending or resolution, so it doesn’t feel particularly suitable or appealing for kids but is an extraordinary work nonetheless.

Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018

I have not read the 1999 novel that this graphic novel is drawn from but, even knowing that this came from a full length novel, I didn’t feel it in any way skimped on the emotional or narrative depth.

Melinda Sordino went to a party in the woods before she started at high school and ended up calling the cops. When she starts high school in the fall she is ostracized by both her friends and students who hardly know her but they all blame her for the breakup of the party and its fallout. It’s initially not clear what has happened to Melinda in the woods but her response to Andy Evans, a senior, leering at her gives us a clue.

Gradually Melinda withdraws into herself, her grades fall, and she becomes isolated, depressed, and virtually mute. The only place she feels she can be herself is in her art class with the quirky teacher who believes in her ability to express herself through her art. Through the project he sets, Melinda is able to explore and open up, gradually realizing what happened to her and as the circle is closed she is able to find her voice and make herself heard this time.

The novel is not without humor. Mel’s narration is caustic as she assesses the other students and the meaningless promises the school makes about being there “to help you” and wanting to “hear what you have to say.” Her bitterness about her situation can be shot through with wit as well, as she re-writes her report cards, grading herself on lunch, friends, and clothes.

Carroll’s illustrations in shades of gray capture Melinda’s experiences both literally and metaphorically. The horror of the assaults on her are conveyed by the transformation of her attacker from person into a fuzzy featured ghoul, and the cinematic cuts sharpen the pace of the action. Being able to actually show Melinda’s artwork, though this is not as heavy handed as you might think, adds another dimension to the novel.

Melinda’s gradual steeling and strengthening is shown symbolically through the solace she finds in gardening and through her writing on the meaning of snow in The Scarlet Letter. It’s maybe a little more overt than you would find in a longer novel but feels rich and persuasive.

Mel gets her own #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, and readers will be cheering for her. Her attacker looks like he will face his comeuppance but who knows what will happen if he is nominated for the Supreme Court when he’s 53.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Katherine Tegen, 2018

Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has been invited to join the elite Ellingham Academy – home to “creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators.” It’s a one of a kind school – completely free and allows the students to focus on their passions. In Stevie’s case that means crime detection. But not only is the school a top place to be educated, it also harbors a mystery: in 1936, the wife and daughter of founder and very rich person Arthur Ellingham are kidnapped. The body of Iris, his wife, and of a pupil from the school are found days later, but his daughter Alice is never found. As Stevie tries to investigate the decades old crime, there is a murder at the school and Stevie gets involved with that too.

The tone of the novel is both sharply modern but also manages to be fashionably retro. The plotting is smart and intriguing and the combination and connections of the old mystery and the new one is well done. As well as straightforward present-day narrative, there are perspectives from 1936 and FBI transcripts of interviews connected to the old mystery.

Stevie is an interesting character – very much at odds with what her parents would like and desperate for friendship from people who get her. Her new friends have a wide range of skin colors, sexualities, and gender expressions and are developed to varying degrees, mainly through the passions that have brought them to the school. Stevie also has a romance that feels completely unlikely and lacking in chemistry.

However, and this makes me so mad, this is the first book in a series and virtually nothing is resolved. You may disagree, but I do feel like a mystery should offer some closure within a book, even if there is an overarching bigger mystery, but that does not happen here – we are left completely hanging. And, while I’m complaining, Stevie manages to find a major clue in a large tin box that the police have somehow completely overlooked while searching a room – feels unlikely and convenient. So all in all, I have to say Truly Devious just felt unsatisfactory.

Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick, 2018.

When Native American Louise’s Kansas high school theater announces a “color-conscious” production of The Wizard of Oz, the prejudices and lack of awareness of some of the school’s majority white community become apparent.

Last year, when Lou’s family moved to Kansas she fell into the social scene she had been used to in Texas – the popular jock-centered crowd. She dated one of the football team until he reveals his casual prejudice about Native Americans. Fast forward to senior year and Lou is determined to be more aware of the microagressions around her.

When Lou’s brother, freshman Hughie is cast as the Tin Man and two other students of color get major parts in the musical, the Parents Against Revisionist Theater campaign starts up, and the families gets hate letters, telling them to “go back to where you came from.” (Ironic, huh?)

Lou finds solace in her new family at Hive, the school newspaper and in the support of many teachers and students. She has all the idealism and self righteousness of her age but as she explores and solidifies her own Muscogee identity she finds that she herself can be unthinkingly prejudiced whether it is with her underprivileged friend Shelby or with her Lebanese-Scottish potential romantic interest Joey.

Though the novel can get a little didactic and there are too many underdeveloped secondary characters, Smith effectively brings to life a slice of Native American culture as well as exposing the often casual bigotry that people of color can face. Includes a Mvskoke-English glossary.

***Highly recommended by Debbie Reese***

Grenade by Alan Gratz

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Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018

Set in the final days of World War II, this intense middle grade/YA historical fiction takes place during the long and bloody battle of Okinawa. 14-year-old native Okinawan Hideki Kaneshiro is forcibly drafted into Japan’s Blood and Iron Student Corps. He is told that the American soldiers are monsters and given two grenades – one to kill the enemy with and one to kill himself. But when his destiny collides with that of young white Ray Majors, part of the invading American force, he chooses to abandon the fight and find his older sister, the only remaining member of his family.

Gratz (Refugee, 2017) graphically shows the terrors of war through the fears and reactions of his two protagonists. However, the implicit message that soldiers on both sides are ordinary men – husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers – put under such unbearable pressure that they become monsters seems a little disingenuous given Japan’s record of war atrocities.

There is a preliminary note explaining the use of the era’s now offensive terminology and, at the back, an author’s note helpfully elucidates why this island was so important to the US and Japan, what the outcome of this battle meant to both sides, and also provides context about Okinawa’s subjugation to Japan. There will also be a glossary, though this reader didn’t feel the need for one as the Okinawan words and beliefs are fully explained in the text.

Gratz clearly has a feel for this era and showing it through the eyes of teens on both sides makes it accessible history for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC